Monday, May 12, 2008

On Time and the Record

From a historical point of view, Marc Bloch described time as “a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush … the very plasma in which events are immersed, and the field within which they become intelligible” (The Historian’s Craft, 27f.). The onward rush, of course, negates the reality—as well as the possibility—of history, unless events are somehow represented in records. Bloch wrote: “Every historical book worthy of the name ought to include a chapter, or if one prefers, a series of paragraphs inserted at turning points in the development, which might almost be entitled: ‘How can I know what I am about to say?’” (71).

From a philosophical point of view, Augustine described time as having three dimensions, all of which are present in the present:
a present of past things, a present of present things, and a present of future things … The present of past things is memory; the present of present things is direct perception; and the present of future things is expectation (Confessions, XI.20).

To illustrate how the mind regulates time, Augustine provides this illustration:
Suppose I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from the province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished my recitation and it has all passed into the province of memory.
What is true of the whole psalm is also true of all its parts and of each syllable. It is true of any larger action in which I may be engaged and of which the recitation of the psalm may only be a small part. It is true of a man’s whole life, of which all his actions are part. It is true of the whole history of mankind, of which each man’s life is a part (XI.28).

It is not insignificant that Augustine’s inquiry on time begins with, includes, and ends with biblical books. Augustine’s inquiry was inspired by the opening of the book of Genesis, which begins with the beginning of time. To illustrate his understanding of time, he uses as an example of a recitation from the book of Psalms. Finally, his reflections presume a comprehensive temporal narrative that extends through book of Revelation, which is concerned with the end of time. For Augustine, time is a matter of the Record.

Image credit: “Take up and read,” from Benozzo Gozzoli’s cycle of scenes from the life of Augustine, Church of Saint Augustine, Italy, available from James O’Donnell’s excellent site on Augustine: